Tangent One: The Scarlet Letter in Imaginationland
By now, we’ve all reread Nathaniel Hawthorne’s second novel, House of the Seven Gables.
But we also have read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s first novel, The Scarlet Letter. Right? Right?
I mean, really, right? I read the novel when I was 16. And when I was 26. And twice in my 30s and twice in my 40s. I understand that this is more often than may be reasonably expected of an adult American. But I currently teach this book to students who are about the same age as I was when I first read the book.
Given that The Scarlet Letter is taught in most high schools, it would seem that this novel should be almost universally understood in our culture. It should be a touchstone that can serve as a foundation for conversations about our culture.
But The Scarlet Letter isn’t such a touchstone. It really isn’t at all. Based on its controversiality, it appears that a large segment of our culture fundamentally misunderstands it.
Hawthorne’s 1850 novel about a woman living in the Puritanical community of 1640s Boston has been taught in high school since at least the 1930s. On thematic and literary counts, it has long been considered a part of the canon of great American novels. It explores universal themes of identity, society versus the individual, guilt and sin, secrecy and openness, revenge and redemption, civilization versus the wilderness. And in terms of literary style, the novel offers high school students copious examples of basic literary devices. Among these are metaphor and simile, imagery, irony, and especially, especially, symbolism.
On emotional, intellectual, and spiritual levels, the novel affords us, adolescents and adults alike, an opportunity to interrogate our own identities in relation to society, and to consider how to navigate the troubled, sometimes threatening waters that swirl in the gaps where our values and our societies are in discord.
The story is told through a conventional chronological narrative, using language that can be understood by students at 10th or 11th grade reading levels. So pretty much everybody over the age of 16 or 17 should be able to understand it.
But if The Scarlet Letter is such a common text in American high schools, and if 16- and 17-year olds are expected to be literate enough to engage with it, then why is the novel so often misunderstood and misrepresented? I do not know the answer. It makes no sense to me. Let me offer a couple of examples of the extent to which we misunderstand The Scarlet Letter, one of them very recent, and others decades-old.
“Misconduct Scandals Show Beastly Behavior Will Not Be Tolerated” by Ada M. Fischer, apparently evokes Hawthorne’s novel to intrigue her readers. I do not disagree with the spirit of Fischer’s article. She largely recapitulates recent public revelations that many powerful male media figures have routinely sexually harassed their female counterparts. Fischer opens by applauding the fact that, in contrast to the public response to Bill Cosby’s accusers, “the public now peaks (sic) at the vile exploitation of women who engage in sexual behavior from Mary Magdalene to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s required high school reading about Hester Prynne of ‘The Scarlet Letter.’”
Fischer wants the examples of Mary Magdalene and Hester Prynne to highlight the pervasiveness of the exploitation of women in our society. Indeed, the biblical/historical figure of Magdalene was, as a prostitute, sexually exploited by men. However, Fischer’s inclusion of Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne in this same category frankly puzzles me. Prynne was not sexually exploited. She engaged in a consensual sexual relationship with the Reverend Dimmesdale. And while the Puritan society of Hawthorne’s novel is critical of Prynne’s behavior, the novel is more concerned with exploring the dignity with which Prynne bears her condemnation, contrasted with Dimmesdale, who hides his sin, until the end of the novel, from his parishioners.
Possibly you’ve never heard of Ada M. Fischer. She is a two-time appointee to the Republican National Committee in North Carolina. According to her Newsmax bio, Fischer has earned her medical degree from the University of Wisconsin, and holds a Master’s in public health from Johns Hopkins. She’s served as a medical director for some big companies, including Amoco Oil. We can safely consider her well-educated and professionally successful. Her accomplishments suggest she is capable of reading and understanding The Scarlet Letter, yet her casual evocation of Hawthorne implies that such understanding has faded.
Fischer’s characterization of Hester Prynne as sexually exploited is less grounded in the novel than in the controversies over the novel from the 1960s and 70s. Hawthorne’s treatment of Prynne has upset people since the novel’s original publication in 1850. This is because the more conservative members of Hawthorne’s society thought that he went too easy on Prynne. They felt that Hawthorne did not spend enough time condemning Prynne’s adulterous behavior. Instead, the novel traces Prynne’s road to redemption after her adultery. For Hawthorne, how one deals with their sin is just as important in one’s life as the sin itself.
Then in the 1950s and 1960s, school districts banned The Scarlet Letter on the grounds that is “obscene” and “pornagraphic.” As late as 1977, a high school in Michigan banned the book as offensive because it contains a clergyman in “fornication.” All of this is despite the fact that the action of the novel takes place after Prynne and Dimmesdale have sex, and there are no depictions of sex in the book. Or even kissing. The very possibility that anyone who has read the novel would accept such reasons for banning the book demonstrates our society’s ignorance of one of its own classic novels.
Why does all this matter? Well, for starters, it’s wrong. That should matter in itself when we are talking about a novel in the American Canon, which is read almost universally in our high schools. Hawthorne’s novel requires only a 16-17-year-old reading level to understand, and teachers typically spend weeks on helping students think about its basic questions, and how these question relate to their own lives and the society around them. We should be able to get this right. Especially with all the available online shortcuts.
Second, it turns Hawthorne into a villain. It’s true that he was just as sexist and racist as many of his contemporaries. But in The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne showed that he was aware of the patriarchy of his society. Moreover, he had the courage to call out his own society through a negative portrayal of the Puritans, a religious group adopted by many in his post-revolutionary United States as exemplary Americans.
But I want to suggest yet another reason why all of this matters: The Scarlet Letter is absolutely revolutionary. About two-thirds of the way through the novel, at a dark and doubting point in her life, while Hester Prynne wanders the forests of Boston as an outcast, she reflects on the grossly subordinate position women have in her society. She reflects deeply. She searches for potential solutions. Prynne realizes that
“as a first step, the whole system of society is to be torn down, and built up anew. Then, the very nature of the opposite sex, or its long hereditary habit, which has become like nature, is to be essentially modified, before woman can be allowed to assume what seems a fair and equitable position. Finally, all other difficulties being obviated, woman cannot take advantage of these preliminary reforms, until she herself shall have undergone a still mightier change; in which, perhaps, the ethereal essence, wherein she has her truest life, will have to be found evaporated.”
I know what you’re thinking. You’re like, “Whoa. Oh no he didn’t.” Hawthorne just said that the “whole system” of American society is built on the subjugation of women. And even if we could change society, we would first have to change men’s attitude toward women, which has become like “nature,” before society can become “fair and equitable.” And finally still, women would have to change deeply.
What this “truest life” that women would need to change is, in typical Hawthornian fashion, left open to interpretation. And I will not pretend that I think I know what Hawthorne means here. It may be inscrutable. But it is certain that in this passage Hawthorne articulates a position that his American society is unfree and unequal when it comes to relations between man and woman. And that inequality is a fundamental structure of American society.
There is much more at stake here than an inadvertent misreading of a very old book. According to Hawthorne, the unequal position of women in society cannot be rectified without completely dismantling American society. For those who have for centuries benefitted from our current sex and gender-based hierarchies, this is a terrifying thought. It is frightening even if we are on the bottom of the hierarchy, for it is difficult for our minds to grasp the alternatives. It thus may well be that so many Americans misread The Scarlet Letter, and insist on casually mischaracterizing it, because they are uncomfortable with the similarities between Hester Prynne’s Puritan society and our own.
Regardless of the reasons for misunderstanding of The Scarlet Letter in many sectors of our society, the damage is clear. By portraying the novel as cheap and pornographic, the novel’s frivolous and uninformed detractors ignore the novel’s complex treatment of Hester Prynne, her choices, and her effort to navigate the challenges of her society.
A note on the images. The illustration in this article were created by high school students in Phoenix, AZ. They are included here as a visual representation of the different angles and levels of complexity through which even young intellectuals can study The Scarlet Letter.